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Still Life: Apples, Grapes, Pear

On view

Still Life: Apples, Grapes, Pear

Artist: James Peale (American, 1749-1831)

Date: c.1822-1825
Medium: Oil on wood
Overall: 18 3/16 × 26 3/8in. (46.2 × 67cm)
Framed: 23 × 32 × 2in. (58.4 × 81.3 × 5.1cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase in Memory of William C. Murray who served Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, 1955-77
Object number: 78.45
Text Entries

Depicting late-summer fruit lying in and about a ceramic bowl on a simple table, this serene composition by James Peale is one of the artist’s finest still-life paintings. Although not signed or dated, it may be attributed to his work of 1822-25 when compared with signed and dated works of the same subject.(1) The attribution is further supported by the provenance: the painting was inherited by James Peale’s great-grandson, Clifford Peale, who sold it in 1939 to a New York dealer, who in turn sold it to the private collector from whom the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute purchased it in 1978.(2)

It was the numerous Peale family of painters who introduced still life to American art.(3) By 1821 James Peale, then in his seventies, had given up painting miniature portraits, for which he is today best known, and had turned almost exclusively to still life and landscape. The traditional conclusion, however, that this change to a larger painting format was caused by failing eyesight may need revision. The meticulous surface detail of the fruit in this painting and certain others of the period indicates that the artist’s vision was, in fact, capable of delicate close-up work.

More pertinent, still life was to give a new dimension to James Peale’s work. His long experience in portrait painting, both life-sized and miniature, brought maturity and depth of meaning to a class of subject matter that even his older brother and teacher, Charles Willson Peale, student of Benjamin West and founder of the painting clan, regarded as merely decorative. His nephew, Raphaelle Peale, eldest son of Charles to survive infancy, had made still life his specialty and no doubt stimulated James to the new effort. Both had shown still life a few years earlier in the 1795 Columbianum exhibition in Philadelphia.(4) But in Raphaelle’s still-life paintings the fruit and vegetable subjects were generalized, and the emphasis was on the aesthetic impact of both the composition and the ideal.

In the Utica still life, James Peale approached the subject as he would a group portrait. Each fruit is painted as an individual with its special merits and blemishes. Each of the five prominent apples has its own shape, color, and profile. One apple in the foreground— perhaps the equivalent of the grandparent in a family portrait—has begun to decay and yet is painted with such sensitivity that it is as much an image of beauty as are the bunches of green and purple grapes in their youthful, relaxed postures. This variety is maintained throughout the picture—in the distinctions of the grape leaves, for example, and the dignity of the single standing pear on the left. The elegant decorated ceramic bowl, indicating the taste and station of its owner, provides the group with a special identity in the same way that a piece of fine furniture does in a portrait.

Peale’s delight in color, already apparent in his miniature and life-sized portraits, was given the possibility of full play in his still-life works. In the Utica painting the profusion of fruit allows him a symphony of strong yellows, reds, oranges, greens, and blues that move across the panel and are reflected everywhere within the composition. Light entering from the left illuminates the assemblage and accentuates the shapes, which are also faintly lit in the right background. This Peale-type illumination (5) allows for a greater concentration on line and texture. The combinations of elements—the shallow space, the spatial clarity, and the silhouetted forms—are characteristically Neoclassical (the prevailing taste in the first decades of the nineteenth century) and can also be seen in Peale’s portraits of the same period.

Far from being merely decorative, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art’s still life represents James Peale at his most significant as an artist of maturity and penetration, as well as an inspired colorist who emerged at the beginning stages of the influential Neoclassical movement in American art.


1. The palette, surface, and objects of the still life by James Peale at the Worcester Art Museum are reminiscent of this work. In both paintings the same container as well as the highlights and shadowing throughout the fruit are virtually identical. V\'ithin Peale’s still-life oeuvre further similarities with the Utica painting appear in three other paintings by James Peale: in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, and the April 1981 sale at Christie's in New York (sale cat. no. 5049, lot 32). All share the same arrangement of grapes, peaches, apples, and pears in a pierced porcelain container.

2. The study of still-life paintings by James Peale presents a difficult problem since most previous attention has been focused on his miniature portraits. Many of James’s children, Anna Claypoole (1791- 1878), Margaretta (1795-1882), Sarah Miriam (1800-1885), and his nephew Rubens (1784- 1865), as well as his great nieces, Anna Sellers (1824-1905) and Mary Jane Peale (1827-1902), painted copies of his still-life paintings. Rubens, alone, noted that he had copied fourteen of James's still-life paintings. See Charles Coleman Sellers, “Rubens Peale: A Painter’s Decade,“ Art Quarterly, vol. 23 (1960), pp. 139-52. Eleven copies of the Utica painting are recorded, some of which are unlocated. All the replicas and copies differ from the Munson-William» Proctor Institute Museum of Art’s painting in the same respect: the apple at the left center is not fully rotten, and there is an apple in the background at left center between the two bunches of dark grapes. This distinction suggests that the copies were made from another version of this composition, rather than directly from the Utica panel. That lost painting is thought to be a work that is known today only from a black-and-white photograph in the James Peale file in the archives of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. No owner is recorded, but the photograph was annotated on the back: “26 ½  X 19 [width given first]/ Fruit/James Peale."

3. For a discussion of the Peale family members and their contributions to the development of this genre, see John I.H. Baur, “The Peales and the Development of American Still Life," Art Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1 (Winter 1940), pp. 81-92; Edward H. Dwight, “Still Life Paintings by the Peale Family,” in Charles Elam, ed., The Peale Family.-Three Generations of American Artists, exhibition catalog (Detroit, Mich.: Detroit Institute of Arts, 1967), pp. 35-38, 118-19; William H. Gerdts and 219 Russell Burke, American Still-Life Painting (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), pp. 24-40.

4. James exhibited one painting and Raphaelle exhibited eight paintings. Subsequently both contributed still-life paintings to the annual exhibitions held regularly from 1811 on at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Raphaelle exhibited sixty-three still-life paintings between 1812 and his death in 1825. From 1824 until his death in 1831 James exhibited thirty-four still-life paintings. See Anna W. Rutledge, ed., Cumulative Record of Exhibition Catalogues: The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1955), pp. 164-67. To date twenty-one signed still-life paintings by James Peale, dating from 1821 to 1831, have been located. Many of these (fifteen different compositions) are also known to have been copied by other family members or replicated by James. Additional works have been attributed to him, bringing the number of still-life paintings currently under study to over sixty works.

5. Gerdts and Burke, p. 31.


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